The spectators leave MASS MoCA’s Hunter Center theater slowly, gathering in knots to parse what they’ve just seen: Sleeping Giant, a collaboration by choreographer-director Lawrence Goldhuber, artist-graphic novelist Daniel Duford, the musical ensemble Tin Hat, video designer Janet Wong, production designer Gregory L. Bain, lighting designer Robert Wierzel, and costume designer Liz Prince. You can overhear queries like, “So the bear was the father of those two guys?” and “Wasn’t that the Superhero who got squashed by the enormous foot? I thought I saw two men in the big tree. . . ” and “So what happened in the end?”
In this stunning visual presention, narrative is the weakest link—enigmatic in a maddening way. Perhaps by the time Sleeping Giant is shown in New York at the Abrons Art Center, October 2 through 5, Goldhuber and Duford will have realized that what they know—and want us to know—isn’t always coming through clearly.
Sleeping Giant derives from an installation of that name by Duford that was shown in Marylhurst University’s Art Gym in Portland, Oregon. As I understand it from perusing Duford’s website, visitors to the gallery could wander among knee-high, free-standing, painted houses that conveyed the story of a small town’s birth, rise, and eventual urbanization, while very large black-and-white, comic-book-style drawings on the gallery walls depicted a related tale of the Superhero and his twin, the Sleeping Giant. In the theater, Goldhuber and his dancers (including Arthur Aviles and Heidi Latsky, colleagues of his from the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company and beyond) depict the “Townies”—first as farm folks when the mighty forest was first cleared, then as suburban types, and finally as suited, clipboard-equipped executives in a corporate world (still, however, barefoot).
Projections of Duford’s drawings and watercolors are skillfully manipulated via video to tell of the town’s rise and transformations and the heroic twins’ related adventures. Duford has mined both myth and popular culture, as in others of his works. The bear (the plus-sized Goldhuber in furs) does indeed hump the maiden in the forest (Latsky whipping her scarf like a hopeful stripper) before scarfing down the berries she’s picked. You think not only of American Indian shamans, but of Leda and Zeus-as-swan. The mighty twins that result (Aviles and Brandin Steffenson) allude to Castor and Pollux and Romulus and Remus as well as to the Incredible Hulk, and Swamp Thing. There’s a gigantic tree, like Yggdrasil of Norse legend. The story is meant, I think, as a parable concerning the destruction of the environment and America’s rise to a superpower, corrupted by avarice and visions of world domination. How do I know this last? In part, from the rapid succession of slides—like frames in a comic strip—that show individual faces, mouths agape to shout “Empire!”
The most thrilling motion in the piece comes from the flying artwork that alights now on the back wall, now on small screens that lift and descend. During Tin Hat’s overture (played live by its composers—Ben Goldberg (clarinet), Carla Kihlstedt (violin and voice), Mark Orton (guitar), and Ara Anderson (piano and trumpet)—fragmentary images of the coming Main Street whirl around like jigsaw puzzle pieces, finally fitting themselves into their proper places. Later in the work, black-and-white drawings appear as pages being turned by the winds of time. The terrific score propels the action with an ingenious mix of simplicity and sophistication, with the trappings of familiar song forms pushed out of shape by dissonant riffs, as life in small-town America sours.
What Goldhuber has put onstage is a sort of sketch itself—in keeping with its surround but not as rich as it might be. When all the cast members (including Rhetta Aleong, Alice Kaltman, and Tony Wicks) appear together in their various guises as townspeople, they either pantomime activities or face front and dance in unison. The choreography is fairly basic—skips and sashays and hoedown-style partnering in early scenes; big, grabby advancing steps later, in front of a drawing showing an endless warren of empty office cubicles. The most developed movement is performed by Steffensen and Aviles (always a marvel of nuanced power) as bouncing boy heroes and, in short order, as adolescents discovering their sexuality in a trio with Kaltman.
Certain large concepts are revealed with effective succinctness. The furthermost backdrop of primeval trees crumples to the floor, sacks (presumably of grain) are piled on it, and the whole thing is pulled offstage. Forest and farmland together yield to development. As greed takes over, the drawn figure of the Superhero diminishes in size until he’s dwarfed by the city streets and stomped on by the aforementioned foot. But the significance of his flesh-and-blood counterpart (Steffenson) having a damaged arm and putting on a helmet to go to war is never pointed up or made relevant. And once the giant awakens, climbs the gigantic tree (in the gallery installation, trees had grown from his penis and nose while he slept), and looks down at the landscape and the people, what happens to him? Was the tree cut down? In the final section, titled “Cubicles and Gelato/Dreaming of a New Hero,” the artwork office spins around its denizens as they run in a circle and come together like huddling footballers. Then the projected images disintegrate the way they tend to do in DVDs that have been rented out too often. What dream?
When the lights go out on Sleeping Giant, you can feel for a brief moment a question running through the audience: “Huh? That’s the end??” Amid the flurry of fascinating images, Duford and Goldhuber don’t often enough help us to understand and—more importantly, feel—what’s happening while it happens. And, because the living people are shown primarily as stereotypes, they add color, but not full three-dimensionality to the artwork world they live in.